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Grab That Memory Before It Slips Away!
by Uma Girish

Return to Creative Nonfiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

A successful Indian-American author shared in an interview the catalyst event that kick started her writing. The phone rang one morning and her mother from one continent away whispered that her grandpa had passed away. That, she says, changed her world. She was startled awake to the fact that she simply couldn't recall grandpa's face. This was the same grandpa she had spent several summers with. It was a significant moment in the young girl's life, one that compelled her to hang on to the cliff-edge of memories, claw back to a firmer grip, and regain the bearings of her past through the printed word.

Writing about one's life evokes a medley of emotions all at once -- anger, disbelief, awe, fear, and insecurity. Above all, writing about one's past cleanses the insides of emotional debris accumulated over the years. If you ask me why I favor the genre of memoir writing, I'd agree with the author above. I write so I can preserve my fragile world from disappearing into the mists of time. So my little girl can taste some of the world I grew up in through the printed word and not have to rely only on family albums of second generation nostalgia.

So when I arrive at my writing desk all charged up to spew out a 1000-word essay about my tree-climbing childhood, do the words trip off my pen with felicity? Most certainly not. As if battling a blank page (or screen) weren't bad enough, my memory bank, to borrow a Rowling-ism, becomes "petrified" (for the Harry Potter- uninitiated, that is the equivalent of a memory freeze). The anecdotes and events, stored in neat little mental niches, refuse to dislodge themselves and allow me access.

Memory triggers

After many mental maneuvers I hit upon a "memory trigger" idea that serves me well. It helps anchor my memory and moors the flavors and essences that surround the memory. It was such a simple idea. All it took was a stroll to the local stationery store. I returned with a couple of sheets of chart paper and an assortment of colored pens. I spread out my white chart and using a felt pen divided it up into a neat grid. Then I started to put my amateur drawing skills to the test. Whenever an object, a phrase, a book title, a piece of music, a smell or a color triggered a memory from my past I drew a picture into one of the squares on my chart.

The black umbrella. As I strolled down the market one hot summer day an old woman holding a black umbrella shuffled along ahead of me. In a flash, the image of that object -- a black umbrella -- took me back to a time when I was seven. In my memory I walked down a long, narrow road, spring green paddy fields on either side. Rain battered down and a sudden gust of wind plucked the black umbrella from my young fingers and carried it away. I remember standing there, tender paddy stalks buffeted by a tugging wind. I had watched the awesome sight of an airborne black umbrella with the complete fascination of a seven-year old, unmindful of the rain that soaked through me. In a rush, my adult senses were flooded with input -- glowering rain clouds, the smell of new beginnings, the low growl of distant thunder. When I returned home the black umbrella found its way into a square on my chart.

Much like inspiration, memory triggers don't always knock before they arrive. More often the connection happens in a split second. And if you're late in catching it, it slips through the edges of memory and stays hidden until it feels like teasing you again. I've had these unannounced visitors and I've grabbed hold of them and pinned them down as drawings in my white chart -- a Cadbury's bar; a rose bush heavy with dew; a dense, leafy mango tree that smelt of freedom; a lost shoe; a red tricycle; a dress with vivid splashes of flaming orange and slush brown.

The rose bush. While on vacation one time I strolled through rows upon rows of rose bushes in Ooty's Botanical Gardens. As I inhaled the sweet scent it triggered an instant flashback. I saw the large, independent house we'd lived in when I was nine. The house in small town Palghat, in Kerala state, had a beautiful garden. There it stood, decked in rose bushes wearing beautiful shades of pale pink, crimson red, butter yellow, and jasmine white, masses of them, raindrops hanging heavy from the soft petals, the air saturated with their cloying sweet fragrance. This single memory served as a crack-of-the-pistol moment for a complete essay on Moving House.

Once these memories are pinned down I return to the chart and pick a memory I wish to write about.

I close my eyes, focus on one single memory, a moment in time, and ask myself a few key questions.

What do I see? A white house? A vat of toddy? A pair of brown shoes? What do I smell? Petrol fumes? Lentil soup? Incense? Sweat? How does the air feel? Electric? Muggy? Cool? What sounds do I hear? Car horns? A vendor? The eerie stillness of night? Do I taste something? Metallic? Sweet? Sour?

I work hard at drawing out the wholeness of the experience and the richness of the surroundings from the well of memory. I write it all down, in no particular order. Sometimes details elude me, only to surface at the oddest of moments. But a picture does emerge, like a negative that sloshes around in the chemicals of the mind. First fuzzy, then hazy, then gradually the blur losing strength as the focus gets clearer.

When I arrive at my writing desk I'm not daunted by my memory's refusal to boot up and offer me instant insights. I simply pick one drawing from my chart and start writing. As I write, the words begin to flow faster and faster. I morph into the seven or fourteen-year old I'm writing about and see the world as she lived it, through her eyes.

Grab your memories. They're the most prized possessions to make sense of your world.

Find Out More...

Essay Writing: When It's Just Too Personal - Heather Haapoja

Personally Speaking - Kathryn Lay

Writing the Personal Essay - Mridu Khullar

How to Keep your Memoir Writing Sharp and Vital - Dr. Allan Hunter

Copyright © 2004 Uma Girish
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Uma Girish is a freelance writer who lives in Chennai, India. She loves writing creative non-fiction because it allows her to share her world with complete strangers. But she also loves to travel to exotic places through mental meanderings which helps her write fiction. Her essays, fiction, and craft-related articles have been published on Mocha Memoirs, Moondance, Einkwell, Absolute Write, Mommy Tales, Write From Home and Seven Seas Magazine. She has also won prizes for her short fiction and essays.


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